Matters Of Taste

A Cursory History Of The Tablecloth

Between the days when your Cro-Magnon ancestors stood next to a big rock where they left their communal haunch of fire-roasted wild boar between tugs with their teeth, and today, when you put your paper plate of pulled pork down on. . . well, that big rock will do, there came the tablecloth.

For most of the two centuries of restaurant history, tablecloths made cheaply-built tables appear elegant. Restaurant furniture is far more expensive than diners realize. The tables take a tremendous beating. Look under the tablecloth and see the gouges, scorches, and engraved initials.

Diners liked tablecloths. They were (usually) clean and fresh. They felt good when you rested your arms on them. And if Sister Mary Cunegunda was right when she warned her sixteen-year-old girl students against going with a boy to a restaurant with white tablecloths, the clean white linen puts you in mind of bed.


A very cheap table hides under these crisp white linens.

But about thirty years ago, a corner was turned. The new gourmet bistros, making inroads against the formalities of fine dining without pulling back on the goodness of the eating, began buying nicer tables and left them naked. (Or they covered ordinary tables with butcher paper.

Meanwhile, fine-dining restaurants were complaining about how much it cost them to replace tablecloths and linen napkins. At some point, it became less expensive to build a substantial and beautiful table than it was to change linen on it several times a day in perpetuity.

Now most restaurants–even high-ticket, culinarily ambitious ones with name chefs–open with handsome but uncovered tables.

As if nobody really likes tablecloths. As if tablecloths aren’t cleaner than placemats (how often are those things washed?) As if tablecloths don’t muffle the noise that is growing louder in eateries daily. As if they don’t feel good to lean on. As if they don’t remind one of bed.

As if “white-tablecloth restaurants” (as in industry still calls the category) aren’t still the most stylish places to eat.

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